The Okanagan Valley is a special place in BC – I think it has a little bit of magic surrounding it. In summer and early fall, it becomes the fruit basket and wine glass of Canada. Orchards, and vineyards as far as the eye can see – dotting the shores of Okanagan Lake, home of the mythical Ogopogo Sea Monster.
Interspersed in all that lush bounty are desert hills, scrappy ponderosa pines and sage brush. It’s a place of contrasts. Desert and oasis. City strip malls and orchards. Wineries that look like they were set down straight out of Europe next to scrubby hills and ATVs and speed boats. Hot, dry days and frantic thunderstorms and mugginess that can roll in at night.
My good chum and business partner who appears around here often, Ethan from Feeding Ethan, and I decided to head up for a quick three day trip – a little bit of work and a little bit of play. We stayed a few nights with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Laura, and her family and their goofy dog, Zoe. (Laura plays a pretty integral but understated role in this blog – her claim to fame rests with my Jingle Bars, Nutella Thumbprint Cookies and Butternut Squash Apple Soup recipes – check them out – as well as countless other suggestions for things to try.)
We hit the road in our rental car early Tuesday morning and made a quick stop in Hope, two hours northeast of Vancouver. It’s the gateway to what was once the goldrush trail leading to the historic boomtown of Yale. And yes, you can still find gold if you’re patient and want to wave a goldpan in the mighty Fraser River for an hour or two!
We really only stopped to get a bottle of water or two and snap a photo for a friend of E’s. But we got sidetracked by this:
Haggis Chips!! Have you ever seen anything like it? We chickened out and got the Bacon ones and honest to God, they tasted just like real bacon. The back of the bag told us what farm in Scotland they came from and the variety of potato used in that bag. I really wish we’d stopped on the way home to pick up the haggis bag. I’m tempted to drive out there one day just to try them out…
Onwards – we headed out on BC’s route 5 – the Coquihalla highway (pronounced coke-a-halla) – affectionately known as The Coke. You know you’re jaded by living in the shadow of mountains when you casually say to others that the Coquihalla is the “boring” route through the mountains – and they nod in agreement.
But then you see things like this and it makes you want to reach through the sunroof and touch the mountain tops as you close in on the highway’s summit.
We eventually left highway five at Merritt and headed further east along the 97 towards a town whose name had Ethan so excited (and why not?!): Peachland. Gateway to the Okangan. An entire land of Peaches – located just down the highway from Summerland. Yes – an entire land of Summer! Lands of peaches and summers – I told you it was magical!
We made a quick stop at the tourist office just outside of town to grab some maps and brochures and the second we stepped out of the air conditioned car into the desert heat, I instantly became 8 years old again. The smell of warm ponderosa pine is a smell that is so intrinsic to my childhood that it was like being hit by a freight train and sent back 30+ years in time to the lake, my grandma, camping, cherries and pinecones. And it was waiting for us – a big “welcome back Melissa – we haven’t seen you for a while”.
Our first stop was one we stumbled on – Deep Creek Wine Estate and Hainle Estate Winery. They’re not on the maps and they like it that way. We had a lovely chat with the gentleman who poured the wine for our tasting and got to meet the vineyard’s dog, Tipsy (for real). Tipsy scares away the bears and coyotes and she is the one who lets the owners know when the grapes are ready for picking (she starts eating them) and when the wine has reached the right stage of fermentation (she sits next to the casks).
Hainle has two claims to fame – they were the first certified organic winery in Canada – back in 1988. And, they are the birthplace of ice wine all the way back in 1972. Who knew a crop disaster would turn into one of Canada’s best known exports!? If you do get a chance, stop in for a visit – the wine is amazing and they have won a host of international awards.
We bid Tipsy a fond farewell and then had the joy of breaking into our rental car (the first of what would be 4 breakins) because of a malfunctioning alarm fob. Nothing like being outside a vineyard and setting off your car alarm – on purpose.
So we moved on, back to the task at hand – wine. Our next stop was up in the hills of Kelowna at Cedar Creek Winery – one of BC’s better known wineries. We didn’t taste here – we were both already familiar with Cedar Creek but we did have a look around.
Right above the vineyard you can see the remains of the massive forest fire that ran through Kelowna almost ten years to the day of our visit – the fire prompted one of Canada’s largest mass evacuations ever, in 2003, with 30,000 people being evacuated from their homes. Countless homes and businesses were lost and even ten years on, it’s still shocking at how much destruction is still visible. As Laura told us later that night, everyone in the region is now required to irrigate to keep the area from being so tinder dry.
One thing we did get a kick out of at Cedar Creek was the new vines in their milk boxes. The ones in the photo above were living in 2% Dairyland milk cartons but we did see a few skim milk ones – I guess those are the skinny grapes
Our next stop after all that wine, was cheese: Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan – literally just down the road from Cedar Creek:
We sampled about 8 different goats’ milk cheeses from chevres to fetas and some more unusual hard cheeses. They even had goat’s milk gelato and other goodies that go very well with cheese. The tastings were two dollars but we weren’t charged and we both wound up purchasing a few different cheeses each (take a cooler for your car!). I used my beautiful Carmelis feta in a quick and easy fresh peach salad.
Despite Ethan’s threats, we managed to make it in and out without any baby goats being abducted into the back seat of our car. But we did have to check them out, along with the very hot and sleepy guard dog fast asleep in the sawdust (he did stretch a paw out when we talked to him but that was about the extent of his guarding…or herding..)
Carmelis wound up our afternoon. We then spent our evening taking a tour of Laura’s farm and apple orchard, and, sadly the remains of her destroyed apple crop. A freak hail storm had moved in the night before and pounded the apples. Many had fallen from the trees and there were holes where the hail had peirced the skins. All those beautiful Macintoshes destroyed before they were even ripe enough to be used for juice. The perils of being a farmer… one day good, the next day, not so much.
All the fallen Macs – most of them with their flesh pierced by hail. I still think it would make a lovely fall setting for engagement or family photo shoots!
Hay at sunset, artichoke hearts and black raspberries. All good things about farming.
We wrapped up our first Okanagan day with a late night bite at Smackdab at the Manteo resort in Kelowna. Margaritas, peach ale and local charcuterie – all while sitting on a lakeside patio at night. Not a bad way to be welcomed back.
I’ll be back soon with part 2 of our Okanagan road trip as well as another recipe for fresh Okanagan peaches, this time with cherries and Black Noir honey and pastry!
The Magical Okanagan Valley Part 1: Wine, Cheese and Being a Farmer